Innovation Versus Tradition in Paganism

The mainstream current of modern Paganism has made much of celebrating “Ancient Ways” and “Old Gods”. This creates an inherent tension between old (or putatively old) practices and beliefs and the innovations and achievements of modernity.

Elements of the broad Pagan umbrella range widely across this expanse. At one pole, you have Reconstructionists, for whom ancient ideas and practices are pretty much everything, and those of other paths who choose to continue to believe (despite much scholarship to the contrary) that today’s Paganism derives from an unbroken lineage of tradition stemming from medieval times or earlier.

At the other, there is Atheopaganism, which draws forward some traditional activities, but contextualizes them in new framings of cosmology, holidays and ritual observances, in an explicitly forward-looking orientation to religious creation, values and practice.

We humans like our traditions. We like to remember how our families did things when we were children, and to feel that our ritual activities are rooted in long histories that reach back into our imagined impressions of olden times.

The danger, however, is that we begin to see the way “things have always been done” or as they “were done long ago” as inherently of virtue…as if antiquity itself conducts value, or legitimacy.

This is particularly true of Abrahamic religions, which view their age as credentialing: as conducting of authority. The Old Texts, the Old Words, the Old Practices are viewed as somehow more important than new words, new practices. “Old” is equated with “genuine”.

When you think about it, that doesn’t make any sense at all. Humans are learning beings. Our understanding evolves.

We don’t insist on using vacuum tubes in our computers because that’s the way Marconi did it. We don’t refuse to listen to music that isn’t centuries old, or demand that our doctors perform bloodletting and trepanning, or dress in animal skins and woven grass because that’s the way Dear Old Homo Erectus did it.

We learned. Innovation brought us to new and better ways of doing things, and ideas that better reflected the discernible facts about our world. And that can be true of religious ideas and ritual practices, as well.

Now, I’m a sucker for the idea of Olde Traditions, too. I love the antiquity of the decorated Yule tree, the dance about the Maypole, the quaff of John Barleycorn, the old recipes and songs. When I’m dancing around a fire in the woods, I feel primal, and I love it. It’s one of the things that drew me to Paganism in the first place; that, and a deep connection to the cycles, pleasures and wonders of the living Earth.

But I don’t particularly want to strangle a Year King, nor burn an ox sacrifice, or cling to xenophobic tribal values that promote racism and expectations of conformity, either.

I believe that Paganism, like everything else human, benefits by what we have learned since olden days. We have had the Enlightenment, we have learned reason and developed the scientific method, we have learned tremendous amounts about our Universe and world, we have come to entertain, at least, the principle that humans are equal and beautiful in their diversities of gender, color, preferences and creed.

And this is why I call Atheopaganism a forward-looking religion. Obsessing about the ancient and believing in a supernatural “Otherworld” is in my opinion a lingering remnant of old stuff that we no longer need nor benefit from. As it contributes to superstition and susceptibility to credulity in pseudoscience and fringe belief, it undermines our societies’ and communities’ capacities to deal rationally and effectively with their problems. At worst, it dovetails with conspiracy theories and beliefs which fly in the face of both evidence and reason.

Moreover, it’s unnecessary. We can have the benefits of ritual, of traditions, of meaningful values and community without it. We can be filled with awe and reverence and joy and purpose without it. We can draw forward those traditions which still speak to us without the dross of those which no longer make sense in our modern context. And we can do it all within the framework of tested models of reality provided by science.

Now, do credulous beliefs work for many Pagans at a personal level? Yes, indeed they do. Those folks find deep meaning in their beliefs and practices, and I have no interest in denying them those benefits.

So where’s the harm?

Well, in a broader context, we are seeing our world tilt more and more to belief-in-the-face-of-expertise. To ideology trumping (hah) reason, fact, and knowledge. And credulity such as I describe is a part of that problem. To the degree large numbers of people are believing that the whims and wishes of invisible powers are influencing world events, they are taking their eyes off of the ball of what is actually going on. And that means that when we need all hands on deck to avert some of the worst crises humanity has ever faced, instead we have many who are simply spinning their wheels.

Can you do both? Yes, you can do both: you can believe in all that invisible stuff, and also act in material reality to achieve social and political change. And more power to those who do!

But honestly, I don’t see a lot of people in the Pagan community doing that. Because if you believe your ritual for world peace is actually accomplishing something, you probably won’t also take tangible actions that help to advance that goal.

Moving into the modern is good. It empowers us with tools and knowledge, and focuses us on the real. And while traditions can be charming and heartwarming and edifying and life-enhancing, there is a real baby-and-bathwater problem with overemphasis on the old relative to the current.

Ours is a 21st-century religion built on a foundation of all that has gone before: all the trial and error, all the false starts, all the discoveries, all the effort. What the 18th-20th centuries have to teach us has no less pertinence to us than what Greeks or Romans or Celts or Egyptians thought centuries prior.

We start from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of humanity, and build from there. Why should our approach to religion be different than that toward any other human discipline?

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Does Truth Matter?

Eppur si muove.
—Galileo Galilei

 

Recently. a friend posted to the Atheopaganism Facebook group, describing a conversation she was having elsewhere in which accusations of “classism” and “colonialism” were being leveled at those who express what is almost certainly the truth: that gods and magic do not exist, except as ideas.

And you know? That accusation may have a point…if that message is directed at indigenous practitioners of native spiritualities. For those people, cultural preservation is important—and threatened—no matter how out of step with objective reality their beliefs might be. They have reasons to steward and preserve their cultures which have nothing to do with how factually accurate their cosmologies and mythologies may be. And except for the most conservative, many indigenous people are happy to incorporate new knowledge, to integrate their traditions with modernity.

But for Pagans? Overwhelmingly white, middle class PAGANS? No, sorry, expressing the truth that, based on the available evidence, gods and magic do not appear to be real to today’s Neo-Pagans is not “colonialism”. Those folks aren’t preserving a tenuous and endangered cultural tradition of centuries; they’re in the process of inventing their own paths, individually. That means that they have the ability to embrace the truth if they want to. If they choose not to, that choice is fair game for challenge.

As for “classism”, let’s be clear: yes, education and scientific literacy are rarer among the poor and downtrodden. But the solution to that is not to celebrate ignorance as a “valid perspective”. It is to provide the means to be less ignorant to those who are, and particularly to fight for opportunities in STEM education and employment for the poor, women and people of color. It is a scandal and a shame that scientific literacy is an indicator of privilege in our society; the proper response is to fight for opportunities for those who are scientifically illiterate to become scientifically literate, not simply to rubber-stamp ignorance as “okay”.

It is not appropriate to shame those who are less educated, particularly if they are open to learning. THAT is classist. But doubling down on beliefs rooted in lack of education out of a sense of identity does not make their lack of education a virtue. And it certainly does not make advocacy for critical thinking a vice.

The alternative to these approaches is for spiritual beliefs to become the magical get-out-of-scrutiny-free card*. Say a person believes that you must sacrifice dachshunds to a magical pink puppy that confers wishes and glitter? Oh, no, we can’t ask any tough questions about that: it’s spiritual!

Now, I generally no longer engage in the your-gods-aren’t-real conversation out of etiquette. It’s rude to tell people that such dearly held beliefs don’t stand up to critical inquiry (even though it’s true). So unless someone tells me that something is true “because god/dess X told me so”, or that some unethical behavior is “a god’s will”, I avoid asking the hard questions that so offend the credulous, not because it is somehow “immoral” to ask them, but simply out of politeness.

There are those who go so far as to claim that science and critical analysis themselves are inherently colonialist, racist, sexist, name-your-ist. They point to times when racist, sexist and culturally chauvinistic “science” has been used to justify appalling actions by colonialist and patriarchal powers. And they argue that the very spirit of critical inquiry itself is a violation of “other ways of knowing”.

First of all, let’s be clear: the egregious scientific rationalizations of oppressive and colonizing behavior happened a long time ago. 50+ years, at least, and for the worst offenses you have to go back to the 19th century.

Today’s scientific consensus does not support racist theory. Nor sexist gender bias. Nor heteronormativity. And although those problems still exist within the scientific community, the process itself has weeded it out from what science tells us today, which is that we are all of equal potential and value. The solution to bad science is more and better science, not abandonment of reason for whatever we might make up.

As it just so happens, the Culture of Oppression—the Euro-derived Western patriarchy—codified the best way we have of determining what is factually true: the scientific method. But the one is not the other. And conflating the two is a rhetorical tactic, not an analysis. Indigenous cultures and non-Western cultures have been using experimentation and evidence to determine factual truth for practical uses for millennia; arguing that it is only “Western colonization” that has done so is simply erroneous and defamatory.

As for science as an inherently colonizing force, that only works as a theory if you equally value “knowledge” that is invented and knowledge that is factually true. And while I can respect the value of culture, I do not extend that respect so far as to think it should trump reality.

I think it matters what the nature of the Universe is. And in order to understand that, we have to differentiate between that and what the Universe is not. In order to treat a headache, you need to understand that trepanning to let out evil spirits is not the right way to do it.

The dismissal of science as an “oppressor” and a “colonialist” is in my opinion a rhetorical dodge, designed to put advocates of critical inquiry on the defensive and to divert the conversation from the fundamental question of truth and falsehood. The use of the very term “colonization” in this context is in itself unreasonable, conflating as it does literal slavery and genocide with criticism of a given culture’s ideas. Those things are not the same, to even the slightest extent.

Science is a gift to humanity. It is penicillin, and electric light, and world travel, and telecommunications. And the revelation of so many wonders.

Are there downsides to all of those things? Certainly. Science is also nuclear weapons.

But there are far greater downsides to ignorance (and let’s face it–people have been using whatever technical advances they made to devise weaponry since LONG before the advent of the scientific method). When we do have knowledge, it makes absolutely no sense to defend erroneous understanding as somehow valid, unless there are other considerations (such as cultural preservation).

Consider the alternatives to challenging cultural norms based in fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Cosmos: human sacrifice to bring the Sun up? Murder of albinos for “witch powder”? Slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses for erectile dysfunction “medicine”? Each of these practices is based in beliefs which are “true” for a culturally specific value of “true”.

Shall we celebrate climate change denial and flat-Earthism as valid and legitimate because the less educated are more likely to embrace them? The suggestion is ridiculous and dangerous. So why shall we not critique the even bigger lie of the credulous, the God Lie, which leads so many to disdain our planet in the hope of an imaginary afterlife?

I say the truth matters, and lack of education is a problem to be addressed, not a condition to be defended or celebrated. The Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. Evolution is real. Anthropogenic climate change is real. Humans first evolved in Africa, and migrated elsewhere. The germ theory of infectious diseases is true.

And there isn’t any phenomenon in the Universe that is best explained by the existence of gods.

These things are true for every human, whether they know or believe them or not.

And that matters. It is no moral crime to dare to say it.

Not in Galileo’s time, and not in ours.

 

 


*Not coincidentally, I believe: I think that putting spiritual beliefs off-limits to critical analysis is exactly the goal of those who throw epithets like “classism” and “colonialism” at those who dare to ask the questions that make them uncomfortable.

 

Atheism, Paganism, and Agreeing to Disagree

I’ve been thinking lately about the crossroads where Atheopaganism lives: straddling lines between atheism, Paganism, and activism.

In the atheistic world, skepticism is a given. There, when you propose something—a policy, a factual claim, a strategic approach to problem solving—it is assumed that you will have both material evidence and cogent argumentation to back your position. Others are welcomed to interrogate, prod at, and refute the position as best they are able. This is a process by which we can arrive at a position which is more likely to be correct than if we did not so critique the initial proposition. The process is central to the operation of science and has been deeply successful in identifying everything that we have learned with high degrees of certainly over the past five centuries or so.

In the Pagan community, it is generally considered to be bad form to interrogate the beliefs of others. It would be rude to ask someone why they believed in a given goddess, for example, and whether they had considered the possibility that the experiences which led to that belief had arisen from some other cause. Daring to suggest that supposed gods aren’t literal beings, for example—or that we should at least be up for discussing whether or not they are—is rejected by some as “non-Pagan”, or even “scientism”.

And yet Atheopaganism exists with a foot in each of these worlds. It is no surprise that we sometimes cause uneasiness in each of them.

When I communicate in atheist forums, on the other hand, I often get strong pushback from people who dismiss the desire for rituals and holiday observances as pointless and superstitious. Even after I pony up the science that shows the human benefits of these religious practices, their value is generally rejected: an example of how confirmation bias is a human characteristic even among those who are working hard not to be subject to such fallacies.

Too much reason for (some of) the Pagans, and too much ritual for (some of) the atheists.

But here’s the thing: I have spent more than 30 years circling with theists. Until the past ten years or so, they mostly haven’t known I was an atheist, but it didn’t make the rituals any less powerful one way or the other. And I stand with them when it comes to freedom of religion, and resistance to discrimination against ANY flavor of Paganism*.

And I have stood with other atheists as they rallied against the cultural discrimination we also suffer, and for rigid separation of church and state, and for science and critical thinking education…and the talismans in my pocket and the symbol around my neck didn’t cause any harm there, either.

Which brings me to that third country Atheopaganism lives in: activism.

I think about the above…and then I think about the vehemence, the vitriol of recrimination and mutual finger-pointing around political issues I see over differences among people who share 90% of values in common. The so-called “circular firing squad”.

The bitterness with which people who are agreed on so many important issues can attack one another is shocking and demoralizing.

It is the viciousness with which Hillary Clinton was attacked by people who agreed with nearly everything she stood for, for example: viciousness not only completely out of proportion to what would have been reasonable, but which was far less intense than the attacks the same people leveled at Donald Trump.

I have no patience for purity politics. No one is pure. No one is perfect.**

The political organizer in me says that we need ALL of us who care enough to act in the coalitions to help achieve goals like progress on climate change and social justice. That to refuse to ally with those we disagree with on one issue drags down the chances of success on many issues.

I have been trying to have conversations about this. They haven’t gone very well. The level of moral outrage displayed by people over points of disagreement clouds the deeper point, which is about all the ways we agree.

At times, I have made common cause in political struggles with people who make me grit my teeth. I’ve done so because my focus was on the goal at hand, rather than on the degree to which my comrades agreed with me on other issues.

And then, I have gone right out and fought those same people on the issues where we disagree…in exactly the same way I have celebrated theist rituals with theists, and then gone on to advocate for Atheopaganism as a valid Pagan path.

All of these issues are intensely personal. They have to do with whether or not we feel personally included, safe, respected, seen, listened to, acknowledged. As such, they stir powerful emotions.

And disagreements about some of them are at root unresolvable. People of good will can—and do— differ on them. In some cases, differences are simply about education: if everyone were operating under the same understanding of the facts, they would probably draw similar conclusions. But in some cases, they are genuine differences of opinion.

Plenty of good people are theists. Plenty of them are atheists.

If—as we say—diversity is a value in our communities, we will have to find ways to coexist alongside those with whom we disagree.

Atheopagans, as a minority within a minority culture, do it all the time.

I hope that in our passion for positions that define difference between us, we do not leap to the presumption that those who mostly agree with us but disagree on a particular issue—or who find themselves caught in the middle—are our enemies.

Being ‘right” is intoxicating. We’re all somewhat prone to its charms. We all want to be in the “correct” moral position.

But there is far more that should unite us than should divide us. And I hope we can remember this as we debate those issues where we disagree.


 

*With the notable exception of racist “folkish” Heathenism, for which I will not lift any finger save my middle ones. There are positions that are just too extreme to make common cause with.

**I don’t have any patience for those who make no effort on behalf of the causes that define our times, either. They might be in our community, but I don’t consider those “allies”—I consider them dead weight. Particularly when they have high visibility and large audiences and could, if they wished, use them for good instead of mere self-promotion.